The great Tokyo chef and avid coffee-lover Seiji Yamamoto has rejuvenated age-old culinary traditions in his quest for striking modernity.
WITH THREE MICHELIN STARS AND THE SECOND-BEST RESTAURANT IN JAPAN ON THE SAN PELLEGRINO LIST OF THE WORLD’S 50 BEST RESTAURANTS, YOUNG CHEF SEIJI YAMAMOTO MANAGES TO COMBINE TRADITION AND INNOVATION. This is probably because his cuisine selects the most eccentric aspects of Japan’s culinary tradition in its research, trawling through the nation’s bygone notions of modernity. It is similar to the great steel tall ships that were rendered obsolete when steamboats came along, and whose sophistication is only seen in niche yachting and sports events. The restaurant Nihonryori RyuGin does not go against the flow of the latest developments in contemporary cuisine with its contrasting flavours and almost obscene level of well-ordered precision, rather akin to a landscape painter’s drawings. His dishes reveal a strange, festive sobriety and unsettlingly fresh colours – a perfect imitation of life. Paradoxically, their delightful ambiguity still contains combinations which create new symphonies, in the same way that the encounter between brass and air produce the unique sound of a saxophone. Meanwhile, most new restaurant owners are content with simplistic a cappellas.
Seiji Yamamoto’s menu contains flavours that are both mysterious and mouth-watering, a bit like the eye-catching calligraphy of hieroglyphs which still remain incomprehensible to the uninitiated. We guess at the sense of it all without really understanding that this cuisine contains an extra dimension, a meaning shrouded in the pleasure it produces. If there is one thing that Japan’s culinary luxuriance has inherited from its long history, it is its minimalism. Time often causes an overloaded accumulation of dusty memories, as in the minds of the elderly. The entire Japanese repertoire cultivates a certain naturalist purity which is at odds with the baroque sensuality which connects the traditions of the rest of the world. Japanese cuisine is not a neat and tidy kitchen garden but rather the best that nature can offer, selected and transformed into something predictable. An arrangement of subtle aromas – as fluid as a perfectly balanced colour chart – that blends the flavour of seaweed, the bitter-sweet taste of yuzu fruit or rich red shiso, as deceptive as a lacquer finish, can suddenly be blown away by the abrupt violence of wasabi paste.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Usually, nothing is further removed from the Japanese sensitivity than allowing others to take a peek at what happens behind closed doors. Japanese chefs unveil only the finished product and rarely disclose what goes on behind the scenes, even when they are working behind the light wooden counter of an open kitchen. Just like in sushi bars, where the movements are so precisely choreographed and the ingredients so meticulously prepared that the spectacle is more akin to a show of modesty. These meals recall the famous statue of Athena with its proportions deliberately lengthened by the ancient sculptor, Phidias, who reckoned that the figure would achieve a perfect form once compressed by the elevated perspective it was meant to be viewed from. Traditional fine dining is essentially an architectural discipline, always viewed from the same standpoint, in the same way as theatrical performances. The waiters are as slick as the furtive, dark-clothed scene shifters that appear onstage in Japanese operas. The audience understands their purely logistical role and ends up no longer seeing them, in the same way that the retina learns to ignore its blind spot. This is why our behind-the-scenes access to Nihonryori RyuGin, into the intimate depths of this Japanese home, reveals the incredible effort being made to render it understandable to the stranger’s inhibiting gaze.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR THREE “SIGNATURE” DISHES?
Seiji Yamamoto: The Japanese are used to drinking bowls of broth, unlike Westerners who hardly ever drink it. My first recipe explores dashi, which is an infusion of fresh seaweed and shavings of dried skipjack tuna. Our typical cuisine is largely based on this. Just like instant chicken stock, it is often made using a mass-produced soluble powder. The aim of my first dish was therefore to rediscover the pure flavours of freshly-made dashi. Then there’s abalone, a mollusc that is not widely consumed around the world but which the Japanese love to eat in all sorts of ways. I chose this second dish for its summery freshness: once cooked and cooled, I incorporate the inner parts into a savoury tart which I top with the abalone flesh mixed with crab meat. The entire tart is then topped with a cold, smooth sauce infused with vinegar. Finally, Otsukuri is a very visual arrangement of sashimi. It is served in small glasses made of traditional Tokyo crystal, which is reminiscent of Bohemian crystal. Like precious caskets, they highlight the wealth of produce in the waters off Japan’s coast.
CAN JAPANESE TRADITION BE SEEN AS MODERN?
S. Y. We owe our culinary heritage to inventors in the past who were ahead of their time. If these national geniuses were alive today, they would probably do things differently. I only retain those aspects of ancient recipes that are compatible with the present day and I try to find my own inspirations to make up for grey areas. Cooking is always innovative but still inherited from the past. Japanese cuisine is particularly influenced by the wide variety of island specialities, which it aims to reproduce at all costs. Its creativity therefore reflects the exuberance of a well-preserved environment which constantly changes with the fleeting seasons.
WHAT ASPECTS OF ANCIENT CUISINE INSPIRE YOURS?
S. Y. There is a good reason why certain techniques have endured through the ages – they are proven through trial and error. For example, I grill some types of fish over glowing embers. It is a timeless technique but I have not found anything as effective for bringing out the uniquely subtle flavours of the flesh. It is as if the smoke infuses it with its wild and natural characteristics. The age of a technology has nothing to do with its effectiveness: just look at the casks invented by the Gauls which are far superior to stainless steel vats when it comes to ageing wine.
HOW DOES TOKYO CUISINE COMPARE TO OTHER JAPANESE TRADITIONS?
S. Y. Tokyo is the capital of Japan. Its inhabitants have access to foods imported from all over the country as well as the entire world. For a chef, this environment is naturally very stimulating, a bit like the Italian Renaissance sculptors who set up their studios in the marble quarries of Carrara. At the same time, it is impossible to find fresh river eel here or enjoy fresh produce that has just been pulled straight from the ground. Larger quantities hide the inevitably poorer quality of the produce, despite the reliable delivery services that bring produce to the city markets. However, Tokyo’s cuisine is not only a product of its identity as a central hub, nor is it a “national blend” of regional repertoires. Take the “Edomae” style of warm, ready-made sushi. This technique comes from the Bay of Tokyo, a blend of the extraordinary diversity of its seabed with the sophisticated aesthetics of the old bourgeois merchant class. But essentially, the best land-based products come from other parts of Japan, with alarming ease. For example, bamboo shoots harvested 500 km away near Kyoto one morning can find their way into one of my dishes the very same evening.
Chef SEIJI YAMAMATO's recipes
“Dashi” broth is made of edible seaweed and shavings of dehydrated skipjack tuna which have been grated by the chef and soaked to extract their powerful flavours before it is lost to the fresh air. Once their flavours have spread through the infusion, it can be used to poach fleshy slices of briny abalone, crunchy bamboo shoots, two citrusy Sichuan pepper leaves and a kind of shrimp omelette.
Tofu with abalone liver
The basis of this recipe is a slice of tofu flavoured with abalone liver. The chef takes advantage of the natural ability of the “soya-milk cheese” to absorb the flavours of ingredients it is steeped in. Eaten plain, tofu is as neutral as a blank page. Infused with the aromas, the silky tofu is topped with thinly sliced abalone, pieces of hairy crab from the northern island of Hokkaido (whose downy exterior seems to herald the sweet flesh), and pieces of crispy okra. The entire dish is then seasoned with a ginger and vinegar reduction.
These luxury tapas are served in small crystal glasses and paint a stylised picture of Japan’s second largest region, with its surrounding territorial waters. Skipjack tuna, sea bream, Japanese tiger prawns, squid and clams are enlivened with garnishes that vary according to the season.
SEIJI YAMAMOTO IN 5 DATES
1970 Born on the “garden island” of Shikoku.
2003 Opens his restaurant, Nihonryori RyuGin, in Roppongi.
2008 The Michelin Guide awards him two stars straight out in its first Japanese edition.
2012 He joins the world’s culinary elite with a third star from the Michelin Guide.
2013 Ranked 22nd in the S. Pellegrino & Acqua Panna list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Text Julien Bouré - Photography Jean-Claude Amiel - Production Sandrine Giacobetti